Skip to content

Homemade holidays…

November 25, 2008

This past weekend our region of volunteers celebrated Thanksgiving together.  It was a potluck style dinner that was fashioned from random findings in the city or from treasures shipped from home.  There was even stuffing, mashed potatoes, pie, deviled eggs, cookies, salad, turkey, cheese ball, gravy, and rolls to be had. 

The dilemma comes when everything takes just a little longer than it normally would to prepare.  Not only do you have to be creative with ingredients when cooking, you have to had in the extra time to find them at the local market.  In my case, I had to plan a little extra to find the main dish (aka Tom, the turkey).

It took about 4 days to figure out whether or not I could buy a turkey in my village.  It took another 4 days to work out of the details or payment, pickup, transportation, etc.  One of the wealthier villagers from my town own three turkeys and my host father and I bargained with the man to sell it to me for 25,000 CFA ($60).  You’re probably assuming that if it cost that much it was probably around 100 pounds.  Well, you would be quite incorrect. It turns out that turkeys are quite rare in the desert, and therefore are rather expensive (we could have bought 25 chickens for the same price).   Nonetheless, I bought the turkey and my friend Ashley came with me to pick it up and take it to the regional capitol.  We arrived at the man’s house only to find that he had gone to the market in the next town and wouldn’t be returning for quite some time.  I texted my host father and he came to the rescue.  The man’s guard sold us the turkey and my host father rounded up some village kids to catch the turkey for us. 

The scene was quite amusing.  Five teenage boys, my host dad, and some random passer-bys were running/sneaking/jumping/diving all over the street in an attempt to nab our purchase.  After about 10 minutes one of the boys successfully grabbed a leg and proceeded to immobilize our poultry friend.  We paid the boys for their effort and they accompanied us to the tasha (bush taxi station) carrying the feast.  We scored a free ride in an NGO car (turkey and all) and had a nice, considerably comfortable 1 ½ hour long ride into Zinder.  It was only considerably comfortable due to the fact that Tom, as we lovingly named our turkey, rode on my lap for the entire duration of the trip.  I might add that when you transport a turkey it’s best to hold their legs (so that they don’t jump around), which causes them to be slightly distressed, which causes them to poo (which happened to fall all over my hand that was holding his legs).  I might also mention that they way he looked at me made me extremely nervous (I can’t decide if he knew he was going to be eaten or if he was trying to figure out if he could reach my face to peck out my eyes).  Either way it was better than most bush taxi rides I have so far.

Sunday (our faux-Thanksgiving) rolled around and we had to prepare our feathered friend.  Two other volunteers were brave enough to kill, feather, and cook Tom (I certainly couldn’t do it, seeing as how we had bonded during the road trip).  I wasn’t sure that anyone at home would believe that all this actually happened, so I’ve include the photo evidence.  And I would like to add that I would much rather just drive to Kroger to buy a frozen turkey for my mom to prepare (it’s much less traumatizing, for the turkey and for me).

Tom sitting on my lap.
Tom sitting on my lap.
Turkey nabbing.  It's too bad that almost doesn't count.
Turkey nabbing. It’s too bad that almost doesn’t count.
Attempt number one...

Attempt number one...


Beans, beans, the magical fruit…

November 11, 2008

One of my goals for my first 3 months at post is to learn how to make some traditional Nigerien dishes.  In an attempt to do just that I spent an hour one afternoon with my host mom learning how to make rice and beans with at onion/peanut oil sauce.  The lesson went well so I decided that I would try to make it on my own. 


I ventured out to the daily market to pick up some beans.  I was surprised to find out that you can’t buy a single serving of beans, you have to buy by the measure (one measure equals about two pounds, and no, it didn’t occur to me that everyone else who buys beans has at least 5 mouths to feed).  I convinced the man to sell me a half measure of beans which cost me a whopping $0.30.  Proud of making my purchase using the local language, I was strolled home greeting all the little kids and old men along the way.  Upon arrival I opened up my bag of beans and got out my pot to boil them in.  I realized that I was going to have to sort through the beans when I saw the plethora or non-bean like items in my bag (rocks, corn kernels, worms, bean shells, etc).  I dumped the bag out and began to sort through the hundreds of beans one-by-one. 


About 10 minutes into what felt like a small project (realizing I wasn’t even half-way done and still had to do the same thing with my rice), I thought about how nice it would be if I just had a bag of beans from the grocery store that I could just put straight into the pot.  It seemed quite ridiculous to spend so much time and effort on preparing lunch; maybe I could just pay one of the neighbor kids to do it for me.  It was at that moment that I felt a little ashamed.  It occurred to me that sorting beans was the whole reason I wanted to come to the world’s poorest country in the first place.  Ok, maybe not to sort beans, but certainly to partake in the tedious, time consuming work of the under-resourced.  I’m the one who wanted to understand and experience first hand the reality of daily life in the third world.  I finished sorting/ cleaning/boiling the rice and beans, and as I sat down to enjoy my lunch I reflected upon all the work it took to make one meal. 


It might not sound as profound an event as it felt, but I assure you that this was a grand revelation in relation to my two years of service.  So, while my flesh desires the ease and convenience of shiny packages of ready-to-cook rice, my soul is learning to rejoice in the tedium of market beans.  I wrote an additional verse to “Magical Fruit” to commemorate the occasion (kind of like the way the Israelites built altars or set up pillars of stones).  Please enjoy:


Market beans, market beans, the magical fruit;

The more you eat, the more you stand in solidarity with the poor;

The more you stand in solidarity with the poor, the better you feel,

So eat market beans for every meal…


I think it will catch on, don’t you?

University Sports Meet

April 16, 2011

Thanks to Tomb Sweeping Day and our university sports meet, last week was quite relaxing.  Classes were cancelled on Thursday and Friday while students and teachers competed in track and field events, and other traditional Chinese sports like Tai Chi.  My sitemate and I were happy to take part in the teachers competition as representatives of the English Department.  How did we participate?  We were asked to carry the department flag and banner :)  Here is a picture of Katherine and I with one of our colleagues, Anita.

 At our university, Tai Chi is a mandatory sport that all undergraduate students must learn. I often walk around campus at night to find several groups of students doing Tai Chi.   Many of my students decided to compete in the Tai Chi section of the sport meet.  Here is a picture of me and two of the grad students, Claire and Neo, who just finished their performance.

Here is a picture of my sophomore English students as they were competing (they are in yellow).

A Weekend Away

April 8, 2011

This past week we had a four-day weekend thanks to Tomb Sweeping Day.  No, I did not sweep any tombs, but I did stay the weekend with one of my grad students, her friend, and her family.  Here are some pictures from our time together:

Zoe, Claire, and I went hiking in DouPeng Mountain just outside of Zoe’s hometown.  To get there, we piled into a Chinese bush taxi (which, by the way is pretty similar to Nigerien bush taxis, only there are fewer people crammed inside.  However, there was no lack of live chickens shoved into bags), and drove an hour through the beautiful countryside to arrive at the nature reserve.  At the end of the trail we had a picnic (bananas, sweet buns, blueberry Lays, snickers bars, dried plums, and chicken feet) next to a waterfall.  It was a beautiful hike along the river, especially since all the spring flowers are in bloom.

 Here Zoe, her mom, and Claire are teaching me to make pork and vegetable jiaozi (dumplings).  When we finished the entire end of the table was full of dumplings.  In case you were wondering, they taste like a party in a pasta pocket :)

Local Grub

February 12, 2011

What Chinese take-out is SUPPOSED to be like.

I’m not going to lie.  When I found out I was going to China, the thing I was least looking forward to was the food.  Thoughts of Chinese take-out in America always made me a bit nervous, recalling the stomach ache and Pepto regiment that is required after the meal.  I am happy to report that the food here in Chengdu is quite delicious.  Each meal seems to consist of several vegetable dishes, a little bit of meat, and either rice or noodles.  This lovely picture my lunch today: rice, a sautéed egg/tomato dish, and a green pepper/spicy sausage dish.  No Pepto required :)

Fabulous Feasts

February 8, 2011

Imagine you just arrived in a country where you don’t speak the language and are just being familiarized with the culture.  Imagine being thrust into five non-stop  days of delicious food, family gatherings, and fireworks.  Imagine the discovery, the potential awkwardness, and the learing curve.

After one week of language training and a homestay with an incredibly kind and generous host family, China entered its two weeks of New Year’s celebrations.  Now, this is no celebration for the faint-hearted.  This is a marathon of vacation days packed with family gatherings and incessant eating.

Wednesday morning I was laying on my bed reading when my host dad pops his head in the door and enthusiastically says “Let’s go!”.  I was a bit surprised to find out that right that minutes the whole family was packing into the car to head over to my host mom’s family’s apartment for lunch.  Promptly upon entering the home I was taken by the arm and introduced to all the family, then seated in front of the table where we would be having a kingly banquet.  There was no taste bud left unsatisfied as I sampled the 22 dishes (including chicken, to duck, rabbit, pork, carrots, cabbage, tofu, yogurt, soup, rice, etc) that were paraded before us.  To the right is a picture midway through the meal with several dished yet to arrive.  Notice the skill with which I use my chopsticks (a skill that is improving daily)!

The comical part of the afternoon surfaced when I met the children of the family.  There were two little girls there, probably 4 and 6.  Their family thought it was funny that the girls were being shy and  awkward around me, not really sure how to act.  Just before my family left I was surprised attacked by an impromptu photo shoot.  The girls’ parents thought it would be funny to have their pictures taken with me, so all of a sudden the little girls are shoved in my direction and a bunch of the adults start taking pictures (I’m sure it was discussed by the adults, which went completely over my head).  After they snapped a couple of pictures of the girls standing shyly next to me the adults joined in on the fun and jumped in as well.  After about five minutes the photo shoot ended and I was whisked away to the family car once again.  For your enjoyment I’ve included one of the many pictures that were taken that afternoon.

The Loop

June 25, 2010

In April/May I packed a bag and took a much needed vacation around “The Loop” in West Africa.  I was accompanied by five Peace Corps friends who kept me company on 60 hours worth of bus rides, built wicked sandcastles, and schooled me in hiking technique.  Our travels included Benin (stopping at Ouidah to see the “point of no return” where slaves boarded ship for the Americas), Togo, Ghana (taking some time at Cape Coast to see the Slave Castle, staying a few days at an eco-friendly resort, and hiking to the Wli waterfalls), Burkina Faso (mainly passing through, but we enjoyed some time in Ouagadougou eating crepes and bowling!), and finally Mali (where we spend four days hiking through Dogon country).  Here are a few highlights from our trip:

Two days of hiking involved a few steep climbs with our packs. We weaved around the mountanside, often crossing logs to get to our destination.
During our hike in Mali, we passed through several Animist villages. These are just two of the hundreds of statues that we saw in our four days in the mountains.
The beginnings of a delicious pineapple. Who knew that pineapples grew on bushes?
Obama cookies, sold at every snack stand in Ghana.
The girls sitting in our vintage sandcastle car. Just one of the many sandcastles we built while staying on the coast.
A view from the slave castle. Cape Coast is a fishing village on the coast of Ghana.

Our friend Assoumane spent a few days in Benin and Togo with us. This was his first time seeing the ocean :)


   On the menu this was listed as “chicken nuggets”. What it tasted like, however,

was a thanksgiving ball.  Thanksgiving ball= turkey and stuffing mashed 

together, battered, and fried. Not too bad! 


Wli waterfalls. We hiked there two days in a row and spent a few hours swimming.


What’s that on your shirt?

June 20, 2010

Once upon a time I was spending the night at the Niamey hostel accompanied by a meddlesome group of friends. It was raining that night and was windy enough to blow things across our yard. As a preventative measure, I put my bug hut (like a tent for one, but made with mesh walls) in the hall between the bedrooms where everyone keeps their belongings (normally it would be on the roof where we sleep because it gets unbearably hot inside). Before heading to bed I decided to take a shower to wash off all the dust and sweat that had accumulated over the 115 degree day. After a refreshing rinse, I returned to my room to get my toothbrush and leave my towel. On the way there I discovered an armchair perfectly centered inside my bug hut, as if it were escaping a swarm of mosquitoes. The pranksters insisted that I at least humor them and sit in the chair for a picture, so I decided to play along (I strongly believe in encouraging pranks). I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed my teeth as I relaxed in the bug-free armchair, I mean, why not double-task? What I didn’t see coming was someone with a padlock to lock the two zippers together. Even though I attempted to dive over the side of the chair and pull the zippers apart, it was useless. My cat-like reflexes had failed me and I found myself trapped inside the glorified mosquito net with nothing but a chair, a toothbrush, and a mouth full of bubbles. I struggled to hold back my laughter and toothpaste, and after almost choking or projecting Crest all over, the pranksters freed me so that I could spit in the sink. I (and of course, they) had a good laugh, and the bonus was that even the inside of my nose was minty fresh.

February 7, 2010

The education of young girls in Niger is a key component to the country developing as a nation. Unfortunately, many Nigeriens believe girls are not as intelligent or as capable as boys, and subsequently believe it’s more beneficial to keep girls at home in order to help around the house. Remaining home will prevent the girls from becoming too independent and dissent from their parents, and parents often marry their young girls off as early as middle school.

Peace Corps’ Team Zinder is planning our 5th Annual Zinder Girls’ Soccer Tournament. Our goal is to show the girls and the communities of Zinder that girls are capable of playing the typically-male sport of soccer, to have young girls invest in extracurricular activities in order to encourage them to stay in school, to give young girls the opportunity to travel and see new communities (many of these girls have never left their own village), and to educate young girls and their communities on significant issues and give them sustainable means to combat these issues.

Each year we choose an issue to address. Last year we focused on AIDS awareness, and we sent peer educators to villages across Zinder to educate our girls’ soccer teams about AIDS, and each team performed a skit or song the following week to showcase what they learned.  This year we are focusing on sanitation. Many people across Niger do not wash their hands with soap. Washing hands alone can reduce many maladies caused by bacteria. We are going to use peer educators once again to educate participating girls on how to sensitize members of their community on the importance of hand washing with soap. The girls will have a 1 week competition to see how many “hand washing stations” they can build in homes within their communities. They will also create a skit or song to perform at the final match in Zinder. Awards will be given out to the teams that win the soccer tournament, set up the most hand washing stations & educate the most people, and the best song/skit.

This year, the number of villages wanting to participate has doubled from five to ten, and unfortunately, funds have diminished. This is why we volunteers have decided to fundraise on our own in order to make this opportunity possible. Each participating Peace Corps Volunteer is trying to raise $350 for this project. Would you consider contributing toward this cause? If so, please write the check to Pamela Taylor-Parker and send to:

 Laura Ballard

c/o Pamela Taylor-Parker

1112 Faithful Place

Wake Forest, NC 27587

We’d like to thank you for all your support and we greatly appreciate any contribution you can make.

Laura Ballard, Regional Team Leader- Zinder, Peace Corps- Niger

Ps – Feel free to contact me at If you are interested in seeing more about this project, you can check out my blog and photos from last year titled  “the 2009 world cup”